What? Surely I didn’t hear that right. I was sitting at the court ordered parenting class required for divorcing couples with children in the State of Tennessee, when the middle aged woman who was teaching the class said those words. Her words exactly were, “You are not a family anymore, and your children need to learn that right now.”
I looked down at my printed material and shook my head. It was a shame. I had admired her cute haircut and her boutique clothes but I knew at the moment she said it that I was in for a long 3 hours. This was not a good start for someone meant to be providing important information on parenting after divorce; especially court ordered information on parenting after divorce.
In addition, the room was full of other divorcing parents who were hearing this and hanging on every word. Some people were even taking notes. I was going to have a lot of work to do in damage control during our breaks.
I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and have worked in mental health for 20 years. I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working with children at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I’ve witnessed case after case of crazy drama with children from divorced parents.
Children who were also fighting cancer. I’ve had patients whose parents had to do visit exchanges, central line care and even chemo at the Sheriff’s Department because they couldn’t behave well enough anywhere else. I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in court by parents who wanted to stop their child’s visits with their other parent when the child only had days left to live.
By the same token, I’ve also seen plenty of divorced couples come together to parent in a crisis and provide support to each other and the child. What I learned in those situations is this: You are still that child’s family. For better or worse.
The materials they handed out in our parenting class seemed beyond outdated, they were antiquated. Not only were we not a family anymore, we were never supposed to ride in a car together with the kids or sit together at events because it might cause the child to have ‘confusion’. Confusion is apparently the worst thing in the world for a child. It seems simple to me; it would be much worse to be a child who feels he has no family than a child who is confused for a few minutes.
Many people grossly underestimate the intelligence of children. Children growing up in these times are exposed to so much more of the world than we were, through TV, computers, ipads and even phones. They are capable of much more sophisticated thought processes than many people give them credit for.
It seems to me that if there is any confusion, one simple conversation at bedtime could clear up any misconceptions the child might have about their parents getting back together. But what about the damage that could be done to the child who is told that their family is broken? A child dealing with stress + insecurity + instability = a child in crisis.
At various points during the class, she stated that research on children of divorce shows that confusion is bad for children. Every single time, I raised my hand and said to the group, “in my opinion, the child should be reassured that you are still a family, just a family where mom and dad don’t live together and aren’t married anymore. “She accused me of not understanding the literature, to which I responded that I absolutely understood the literature but that the literature she was teaching was dated 1987.
In 1987, there was still very little mediated divorce and Dad’s got very little custodial time. Times have changed. She even went so far as to say that in her opinion (but she was speaking as the voice of the court since we all had to do this before our final divorce hearing) Dad’s never should have 50% of custodial time because ‘usually that is merely a play for them to pay less child support.’
This was proving to be an uphill battle, but at this point I felt it was important that the 40 people sitting through this court ordered class needed to hear some alternative ways of parenting through divorce. I stated that in my clinical opinion it was detrimental to children’s emotional adjustment to be told that their family was no longer their family.
People were looking at me with big eyes as I talked back to the teacher. “Just because my ex-husband and I are no longer married doesn’t mean that we aren’t their family,”I said, “and furthermore, recent research on children of divorce shows that children with access to both parents, who can communicate, and both stay close to the child, have better outcomes.”
She said that my children would be confused and may have problems later. I invited her to do a research study in 15 years on my kid’s adjustment to our divorce since both of us were going to do our best to maintain our children’s feelings of stability and family. She glared at me and I glared back. She was so angry her hand was shaking as she handed me my certificate of completion.
Two weeks later my ex-husband had to attend the class. He told me later that he raised his hand and told the group that he felt it would be ‘wrong’ to tell the children that they we weren’t a family anymore. She said, “Oh, I know who your ex-wife is.”
I have contacted the State of Tennessee regarding the outdated materials used in their court ordered parenting classes. With any luck at all they will be using materials written in this century very soon. But for our children, for better or worse, we are their family.